by Mac Tonnies
(Illustration by Dia Sobin.)
She might have had an identity once. Or at least the synthetic equivalent. But years have passed; entropy haunts the labored rhythm of her stride, the flow of her thoughts. All the sidewalks look the same, an endless montage that recedes to eggshell anonymity in the summer glow.
Some houses have fallen apart; others hover on the brink of dissolution, weather-beaten and faded. She walks past them, bare legs registering fatigue, but only dimly. Past lawns overtaken by hard-packed dirt and brackish weeds. The carcasses of cars litter long-abandoned driveways like rusted sentinels. She experiences a fleeting urge to join them in their slumber and examines their doors with ill-conceived longing.
The sun weighs on her slim shoulders. Her T-shirt, discolored and torn, flutters in the hot breeze; she rubs coal-black hair from dark, searching eyes and mops imaginary sweat from her brow. She looks new, or almost new. She wonders if others of her generation have lasted as long; after all, wasn't heat the enemy of electronics, the bane of overworked laptops? Of course, she isn't electronic in the archaic sense . . . but the word had seeped into her lexicon. She enjoys the heft of the obsolete syllables, cryptic and full of wasted portent.
She invokes diagnostic systems she'd almost forgotten. As her sensorium comes to life she stumbles under the sudden deluge of discomfort, the sun's blade shoved deeper into her flesh, threatening to rend the slender fiber-optics that run through her spinal column. Animal fear grips her; she marshals the discipline to remain hunkered on the hot pavement while her brain severs the barrage of input. As she waits, she scans the street for evidence of shade. Not all the trees have burned; sometimes she takes comfort esconced in their branches.
She regains equilibrium; the world recedes to its usual cautious distance. Flies orbit her head as she passes a mound of mummified garbage. A stack of tires stands vigil on the corner of a ruined yard, the treads gelled and bleeding from long exposure to the heat. Two blocks later she turns left. Then right. Then right again, trying to dispel the sense of having retraced her steps in some heedless suburban orouboros.
Her feet chafe on the pitted concrete. She almost welcomes the snarl of cars she finds left in the intersection; she climbs, enjoying the feel of curling paint on her splayed palms, savoring the small avalanches of rust she displaces with her knees and shins.
From the top of a heat-blistered convertible, she surveys the crumbling rooftops. To the west, something is burning, sending a stalk of blue smoke coiling into the cloudless sky. On the horizon, the remains of the city skyline hover like a sickly mirage, sunlight glancing cruelly from intact windows. She's never seen the city so clearly before, and studies it with sudden fascination as memories surface:
Her own skin lifted from a frothing vat like a pinkish wetsuit, hands like empty gloves, facial features deflated into a thoroughly demeaning caricature. The techs had installed her sense of body-identity before adding the actual body; her abrupt adolescence had been spent in a grueling immersive dialogue with Turing auditors.
Her first vision of the world -- the real world, as opposed to the auditors' cybernetic fictions -- had come when her body had achieved a semblance of womanhood. She remembers awakening in a scalding foam of nanomachines, gloved hands drawing her up into a haze of disembodied eyes and fluorescent strips that left rungs of purple light on her newborn retinas.
That night, as the sky turns a gauzy red and the first rain of the summer begins, steaming on contact with the sun-soaked asphalt, she finds herself in the brittle haven of a dead tree.
She lets her sensorium expand to encompass the lifeless suburbs:
Derelict stripmalls . . . Streets arranged in inadvertent mazes merge with vistas of smoke and cauterized weeds . . . The tombs of houses, roofless, now filling with water . . . The distant city like some monstrous glass whimsy.
Her jaw opens slightly; she licks hot rain with a metal tongue.